Department of Science and Technology

Thursday, 5 October 2017

 

I wish to thank the CEO of the CSIR for inviting me to speak here.

 

The work of the CSIR is critical to our ambitious transformation goals.

 

The CSIR is the jewel in the crown of our public research system. It has long been so. It was created over 70 years ago. It was designed to support and establish a manufacturing industry in South Africa. Today we are confronted by socio economic challenges that are strikingly similar to those faced by South Africa when CSIR was created, and it is our intention to continue to support this institution to help us increase industrial activity, innovation and human resource development.

 

South Africa continues to rely on extractive industries and agricultural goods for economic growth, however it has become clear that we need to look beyond these sectors for new growth opportunities, new enterprises, new jobs. We believe that CSIR could play a leading role in our selection of new growth sectors or innovative development in existing economic sectors.

 

CSIR is already actively supporting the emergence of innovative SMMEs through support in biotechnology, bio refinery processes, advanced manufacturing support and investment in nanotechnology research.

 

In fact, CSIR is the best placed industrial research support stitution in the face of vast technological change and the increasing influence of artificial intelligence and digital technology.

 

It’s changing the way we live, the way we do business, and the way we solve problems.

 

What we are looking for now, seventy years after the CSIR was founded, is transformative innovation. It is a complex process. It goes beyond innovation that modifies. We do a lot of this type of innovation - improving the system, making sure that things run faster, more cheaply, more efficiently. We are hoping for much more than that if we are to derive significant benefit from STI.

 

I’m also not talking about disruptive innovation, about which we have heard so much recently. We need to reflect on and plan for much more. We need much more reflection on our context and how we can utilize the expertise and skills in CSIR and other science councils to respond to the challenges of poverty unemployment and inequality.

 

The private sector has a huge role to play in developing affordable products and services and I hope the CSIR will work more closely with the private sector to ensure we advance our innovation goals in partnership with the private sector.

 

I am aware that the CEO has begun reflecting on these challenges and opportunities. He recognizes we need to do more. Transformative innovation is not a system innovation, but an innovation of the system. It’s not about sustaining an old system - to make it work better, faster or more efficiently. It’s about designing a new vision. You can’t transform a sewerage system by making it work better, faster or more efficiently. You have to take the water out of it, make it work without water  - to decolonise the worst system that the colonisers imposed on us, to transform it innovatively.

 

A year ago, the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex approached the DST to participate in an innovative research-to-policy initiative. The core of the initiative is a co-creation process between policy-makers and researchers with the aim of advancing new thinking on innovation policy. Together with four other countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Columbia), South Africa joined as a founding member and committed to a one-year pilot programme to explore the meaning of transformative innovation and to infuse it into our thinking about innovation policy. It’s now a five year programme and we’re on a steep learning curve.

 

We’re looking to the future. We’re looking for something new. But we’re also looking to replicate what’s worked best in the past. One of our biggest national science initiatives, the SKA has set the best example possible - for international collaboration, for capacity building, and for putting African science on the global map. We want to see CSIR achieve that scale of impact.

 

The construction of the MeerKAT, the South African designed and funded precursor to the SKA, is on track. MeerKAT is a powerful instrument in its own right. Investments such as MeerKAT have started to attract some of the world’s leading astronomers to South Africa, with several taking up full-time positions at South African universities. South African scientists, who are part of our SKA programme, recently won acclaim in the prestigious journal Nature for a new discovery of a black hole.

 

The global project is progressing well too. We are currently in the pre-construction phase, preparing for construction proper to start in 2018. The current global investment is more than R2 billion in this design phase - an impressive figure but dwarfed by the ultimate anticipated investment of more than R30 billion for the full SKA construction. These are only the construction costs. The operational costs and aggregate impact on the South African economy will be several billion Rand more per annum during the lifetime of the telescope, which will extend over several decades.

 

Our partnerships with the eight other African nations that will host remote stations of the SKA remains strong and we are developing with them, in preparation for the full SKA, a new African network of telescopes, the African Very-long Baseline Interferometry Network or AVN. We are grateful for DIRCO’s investment, through the African Renaissance Fund, in this important project, which is making a valuable contribution to the training of the next generation of African scientists and engineers.

 

Our priority in the future is science, technology and innovation in Africa. We want to be part of a vibrant African research and innovation system. So we look for international cooperation to support science and technology capacity-building everywhere in Africa. For this goal we seek to leverage our comprehensive portfolio of international relations and are keen to partner with Asian, American or European nations in reinforcing African capacities.

 

Another priority is to attract international investment to South African science, and to secure human capital development partnerships with international partners, such as training programmes abroad for South African researchers.

 

An important focus is on encouraging international companies to relocate some of their R&D programmes to South Africa. Some South African companies have done the opposite. We want to reverse that trend and through smart investments and incentives make South Africa a preferred investment destination for global R&D.

 

We, however, pay special attention to South-South cooperation. We are proud that South Africa hosted the first BRICS Ministerial meeting on Science and Technology and is one of the champions for the conclusions of a BRICS MOU on cooperation in science, technology and innovation. We are also currently the President of the Non-Aligned Movement’s Centre for Science and Technology.

 

Our aim is transformative innovation - building new manufacturing industries, building better partnerships, and building a better future. The CSIR is showing us the way with ideas that work.